The Retreat: For Nervous Invalids, Des Moines, Founded 1905

I’m working on the manuscript for Leora’s Early Years and still discovering the man she married in 1914, Clabe Wilson. This is about his mother, Georgia.

Georgia Wilson, widow of Dan Wilson of Guthrie County, Iowa, just wasn’t regaining her health after some kind of surgery a few years earlier. In 1917, her three oldest children were married, and she was trying to make a home for her younger daughters, Fonnie (14) and Verna (10).

Her doctor recommended that she try The Retreat, a private mental hospital at 28th and Woodland Avenue in Des Moines. 

The main building was the old Callanan mansion, named James Callanan, an early Des Moines capitalist, involved with insurance and real estate. An article published in 1904, just after his death, said “James Callanan, the late millionaire philanthropist, left his home for drunkards’ wives and widows.” 

Dr. Gershom Hill and Dr. John Doolittle, who had been in charge of the state hospital at Independence, began what was sometimes called Hill’s Retreat in 1905. They believed that being able to live in home-like surroundings helped those with nervous and mental disorders. Patients not needing hospitalization lived in five cottages, where nurses were on duty. A woman could have her children with her, and they were allowed to roam the 17-acre grounds, where gardeners tended the orchards and vegetable gardens that supplied the institution. 

It cost $125 a month for Georgia to live there with her two younger daughters. 

But four months later, Georgia Wilson was worse. J. P. Fox was named as temporary guardian for the young sisters, although they lived family members. The youngest one lived with her brother Clabe and his little family for a while.

On November 9, Georgia Wilson, age 52, was admitted to Clarinda State Hospital, where her husband had died in 1909.  She died there two weeks later. 

Both of Clabe Wilson’s parents had difficult lives during his young adulthood, while he was beginning his own family. It was the same situation for Rectha and Alice. We will learn that Fonnie and Verna became well-adjusted adults. Don’t know wish you knew the family story from their points of view?



    • She’d had some kind of surgery six years earlier, at Guthrie Center (population about 1500), and was there for a month, type of surgery not listed. The private hospital was the upper story of a building on the highway through town. Some of it was what her husband put them all through, leaving her with the two young girls. I don’t have a death certificate, just the records from the Clarinda State Hospital. “The cause of death being exhaustion from manic depressive – depression.” The poor woman, and those young daughters. Friday’s post includes a little about what happened to them.

    • Anne, I “chased ancestors” before our son was born (he’ll soon be 48). I’d also asked both grandmothers to write their memories. They did, especially Grandma Leora. Since she’s been gone (1987, age 97), Mom and I researched in old newspapers and visited places she told about. These last two books are largely because of the clues Grandma left. (Before I came down with fibromyalgia two dozen years ago, I’d also written the Clarinda State Hospital for records of relatives who died there. Those details gave a picture of what family life had been like.)

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